Frederic Family Days
Shallow cans of Budweiser swill across chipping picnic tables, soaking into denim-shorts and running down peeling, sunburned legs. Occasionally, the seated softball fans rise to clap at a ringer slammed across the dirt field by one of the "Mean Greens" or "Hack's Pub" players, who cast aside their cans of Miller before rounding the dusty bases. Dirty children run to mothers sporting curly-blonde bangs and beg for dollars to take to the mini-donut stand, tantalizingly erected in the corner of the parking lot. The mothers glare at their children, while reaching sweaty palms into tight pockets. The women don't remove their eyes from the game behind the fence. While chewing, the kids crowd in circles, swiping sugar crystals from their chapped lips. They count the donuts in their thin, white wax-paper sleeves, to see who received the most from the smiling Man in the truck.
[I walk quickly away from there, beckoning to cousins dangling feet from the wooden pier, stopping for a minute to buy a red freeze-pop from the concession stand. The game is nearing its end, and the families, and the men playing, are as drunk as the past hours will allow. I want to stay off the roads; to placate my cousins with rock-skipping contests so that they won't ride home on their bikes. Stretching out on the dock, I forget about my Popsicle as its sugary, dyed fluid runs down my arm. We dip our toes into the lake's cloudy, brown waters, and small sunfish nip at the pink buds bobbing in their wavy sky.]
The next blue morning, women and children dress early to drive the five, or eight, or ten miles to Main Street (which is really called Oak Street) and the sidewalk sales. Businesses clear out their storerooms' clutter, placing odds and ends in wicker baskets squished together atop aging card tables. Elderly customers crowd the streets, perusing the wares of the popular, misspelled "Pazazz" salon. The salon owner's boxes and bins are filled with scrunchies, pink and black plastic headbands, and nearly-expired tanning oil that the old ladies finger and cast aside. Carlson Hardware stocks the streets with mismatched nuts and bolts, random picture frames, and a few discontinued bicycles. Young girls push and elbow each other for access to the fuchsia one, knocking the littler kids to the cement. The pigtailed kids are later pacified by nice bank tellers who hand them lemon and grape Safe-T-Pops while their young mothers gasp in horror. Safe-T-Pop handles lie soggy along the pavement outside the bank.
The end of the line, Lois and Jim's Super Valu, provides lunch for all of the shoppers. Picnic tables line the green space next to the railroad bed now used as a bike trail on cool, early-summer days like this. The mothers, the grandmothers, the daughters all gather for hot dogs and Kool-Aid under an icy blue sky. The breeze flings bright white paper plates down the trail, and boys and girls chase after them, scaring yellow moths sunning themselves on the crushed, gray rock.
[I remember walking along the sidewalk sales with my mother and grandmother (who was from an unincorporated village without a yearly celebration). We'd thumb stacks of magazines and yellow books in the Frederic Public Library's clearance boxes; my mother and grandmother leafed through books they had read as girls. I never wanted the Nancy Drew tomes my mother insisted on buyingI never read them either. I was farr fonder of The Babysitter's Club, and spilled raspberry soda on the floor of my mint-green carpeted bedroom trying to hoard food like my favorite character in the books (her name was Claudia). Today I don't visit the sales. I cannot fill my apartment with any more clutter. Some day soon I'll move across country, and fuzzy, yellow headbands and Nancy Drew will slump together in a Minnesota Dumpster.]
On that Saturday evening, the whole town gathers on a stifling, ancient gymnasium floor lined with metal folding chairs that scrape off top layers of wax. The audience gazes toward the silver and gold glittering stage, and the runway protruding from its center. Burgundy velvet curtains never swing from breezes here. As the pageant begins, townspeople fan their sweating faces with programs containing profiles of each queen candidate and her good deeds, desires, measurements. Breath halts. Sweat drips. Men and women shift their weight from one hip to another, fooling themselves that the chair is softer. The candidates parade across stage in bathing suits, smiling widely but walking stiffly in cheap, white, scuffed pumps. People cough. The audience quietly laughs at monologues about family car trips and teenage suicide-attempts, poorly acted by young women wearing too much rouge. As contestants perform tap-dances to "New York, New York," or flatly-screech Whitney Houston's greatest hits, the audience members hide their smirks behind the same program. Later, they nervously check the itinerary: "When will this be over?" they ask their husbands, their wives, as they excuse themselves to the bathroom to splash cold, iron-red water on their faces.
[As contestants, we raised money through car-washes in church parking lots and were ogled by travelers on Wisconsin's Hwy. 35. Most cars that pulled into the lot had drivers who stepped out while we sponged the cars' bodies. One black Mazda ignored this protocol, as its wide-eyed occupants stared at us through tinted windows. I remember pausing to tie my towel around my chest, toga-style, so I could avoid the driver making comparisons to the car-wash scene in "Cool Hand Luke." My chest was not ample anyway. We finished the wash and those customers handed us two dollars through a small window-crack. I put this measly money toward a lacy, bow-covered dress purchased from a consignment shop in Iowa. I never took it seriously, though I still wanted to win. I wanted to be the all-American teen princess for a lousy five hundred dollar scholarship.]
After the pageant winner is chosen, townspeople pile into their Fords and drive to Main Street, where they park in the nearly-full Super Valu lot. Orange snow fences and striped, reflective cones cordon-off the ends of the streetthe same one that held the sidewalk sales earlier in the day. A large semi-truck trailer forms a stage at one end. The men and women exit their cars and walk to the Pioneer or the Skol, where they buy a tepid Miller for a buck and carefully shift their pool cues around the waists of the crowded, paneled room. Laughter resonates onto closed-off, detoured streets where the second-rate bar band "Deuce" plays hits from the late-1980s. Children dance along the yellow line with fathers who accidentally step on their toes and raise their voices in attempted-harmony with the chorus.
[I stand on the curb, chatting with former classmates with children and jobs at beauty parlors, sipping a cheap, watered-down vodka tonic and twirling my hair. Even when twenty years pass, I imagine things will be the same. The water tower will still read, "Billy Bob loves Charlene," beneath a poor, silver spray-paint job meant to cover it. I will still know the paths through the high school forest, where friends and I huddled in a culvert washed with rain. I will still miss "Beer Can Alley" before it was paved and, yearly, cars careened into the narrow strip of woods between this curvy road and Hwy. 48. The young men from the class below me, the juniors who stomped on our feet, stagger toward me, slurring, "Wow!! Jennyroseryan.! Yerrrrr hot! One of them slings his arm around my waist. As his hand slides downward, I abruptly fling it away.]
The next morning, the sun breaks brightly through cracks in mini-blinds, summoning wakefulness from the heads of last-night's partiers. The people collectively groan, clutch their foreheads and stumble to the kitchen for a cup of Folger's, stretching while glancing across the fields undulating in the breeze. They rub their hands across their heads, dusting away ash and stale smoke. They do not want to move from the porch this day, but they promised. Their kids want to see the fire trucks, and catch Tootsie Rolls from Lioness clowns in red, rubber shoes. Brownies, waving, will toss Dum-Dum lollipops, and mom and dad will have to sharply grab fleshy, sunburned arms to keep kids from running in front of Clydesdales' clomping hooves as they scramble for Jolly Ranchers.
The parade begins at 1 p.m., but the town begins to line the gray curbs long before that, fighting for the prime spots in front of the Olde Thyme Drive-In. The route stretches north from this place, and the pink floats can be seen and the blue band heard long before the ensemble arrives. In yellow and green plaid, plastic lawn chairs they sit, chatting with parents, grandparents--the kidss' hearts race in anticipation for the same thing that happened last year. And the year before that.
[I drive home immediately afterward. The parade is another spectacle I've seen before, but I cannot help it. It's like a cliché: a car crash, a train crash, a terrible accident, a tornado. I'm mesmerized, and I don't always want to say goodbye to that past.]
Copyright © 1999-2003 by Amarillo Bay. All rights reserved.